The first few months of the year hold few reliable charms for moviegoers, but Liam Neeson and his passion for characters who take the law into their own large and capable hand has been one of them.
Starting a decade ago with “Taken” and continuing with two sequels and stand-alone items like “Non-Stop” and “The Commuter,” Neeson has become today’s berserker of choice.
Currently battling the real-world backlash to revelations about his personal ideas on revenge, Neeson on screen turned out to be especially good as a brutal zealot willing to go to any lengths to restore order and balance in the universe.
“Cold Pursuit,” Neeson’s latest, at first glance seems to be more of the same. He plays Nels Coxman, a taciturn type who is visited by tragedy and decides to take revenge on the evildoers who ruined his life. What could be wrong with that?
But, though written by American Frank Baldwin, “Cold Pursuit” is actually a remake of the Stellan Skarsgard-starring Norwegian film “In Order of Disappearance,” written by Kim Fupz Aakeson.
Hans Petter Moland, who’s been called “the Ridley Scott of Norway,” directed both the original and this English-language remake, and that has made a difference.
For at the end of the day “Cold Pursuit” feels like a case of cinematic bait and switch. It may present itself as a Neeson action vehicle, but it’s actually a classically Scandinavian exercise in the blackest of black humor, a nihilistic work that has more in common with art-house successes like “Under the Tree” and “Rams” than a brawny blockbuster.
In theory, this switch could have been a tonic, a way to refresh venerable action tropes. But though everyone tries hard and some performers — including Emmy Rossum as an eager young police officer and Domenick Lombardozzi as a wised-up wise guy — do bring a smile, the results are not encouraging.
Neeson’s Coxman (yes, the name is supposed to be a joke) is introduced doing what he loves best, driving a snowplow in the outskirts of the fictional Colorado ski town of Kehoe (the slopes around Alberta, British Columbia, provide the actual location).
In theory married to the aptly-named Grace (Laura Dern), Coxman is actually wed to his job, which he does so well that the film opens with Kehoe giving him its Citizen of the Year award.
But at roughly the same time Coxman is receiving his plaque, his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson, Neeson’s real-life son), a baggage handler at the local airport, is brutally killed in an attack that is made to look like an accidental drug overdose.
Convinced that his son is no druggie and thirsting for (what else but) revenge, Coxman finds the lower-level folks responsible, miscreants with goofball nicknames like Speedo, Limbo and Santa, and terminates them one by one. Mocking Coxman with a sneering “I don’t know what igloo you crawled out of” does not turn out to be an effective line of defense.
The head of this particular mob, we soon find out, is the slick psychopath Viking (Tom Bateman), who combines contempt for ex-wife Aya (Juliet Jones) with an overwhelming concern that his brainy young son Ryan (Nicholas Holmes) stay away from unhealthful desserts.
If this were a classic Neeson vehicle, Coxman would make a beeline for Viking and his crew, but the script has him instead consult with his ex-gangster brother Wingman (the veteran William Forsythe), who advises him to hire a hit man called the Eskimo (Arnold Pinnock).
Like the film’s nicknames, which are a running but not particularly funny joke, “Cold Pursuit” starts to lose its way at this point and never fully recovers.
With Coxman unaccountably stepping aside for a time, the film devolves into a rivalry between Viking’s gang and an organization headed by a Native American drug dealer named White Bull (Tom Jackson). He, like Coxman and Viking, has a son he cares about, a parallel that’s as overly tidy as it sounds.
Though “Cold Pursuit,” with the Coen brothers likely on its mind, plays out as would-be hip and deadpan, it doesn’t sweep us away in its madness the same way something like “Fargo” does.
The body count goes up, but our interest level doesn’t rise with it. A film where the impressive snowplows (made by the venerable Norwegian manufacturer Overaasen) command the screen more than the people is inevitably in a bit of a rut.
Rated: R, for strong violence, drug material and some language including sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: In general release